The Lazarus Story: A new perspective

By Dan Wakefield, Ursuline Associate

The Resurrection of Lazarus” by Léon Bonnat (1833–1922). Photo: Public Domain, courtesy Catholic Digest.

I’ve always been drawn to the complexities in the Gospel story of Lazarus and the intermingling of the human and the divine within the story: the illness of Lazarus and his sisters calling on God; “doubting” Thomas being the apostle to rally the other disciples to be faithful to Jesus and return to the town of Bethany; the community comforting Martha and Mary in their grief over Lazarus’ death; Martha and Mary’s unwavering faithfulness in Jesus; Jesus weeping on his way to Lazarus’ tomb; and finally the raising of Lazarus from the dead.

Just as I thought I had considered it all, a new interpretation of Lazarus was recently offered on social media by Jesuit priest Fr. James Martin. Fr. Martin noted that, given the information we have in the Gospel stories about Lazarus, Lazarus was a countercultural figure during his time.

Despite living in a patriarchal society, Lazarus isn’t positioned as the head of his household, instead living with his sisters, Martha and Mary. Although both Martha and Mary have dialogue that is recorded in the Gospel, Lazarus remains silent, even after being raised from the dead.

These observations have led some scholars like Fr. Martin to speculate one possible reason: Lazarus was disabled.

Reflecting on this possibility opens up a whole new way to interpret the life of Lazarus, the love of God, and provides us with a powerful message.

How many of us might now be able to more fully identify with Martha and Mary who, with this interpretation, are not only devoted sisters, but also devoted caregivers, to their brother? How much more empathy might we have for Martha in the story from the Gospel of Luke when she is stressed and overwhelmed by serving? And how even more powerful and loving is Jesus’ message to Martha in that story when he responds: “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and worried about many things. There is need of only one thing.”

Martha and Mary both place their trust in Jesus. Jesus provides the sisters and Lazarus the knowledge that they are seen, they are loved, and they are worthy. As caregivers, this knowledge that their faith would sustain them during difficulties and challenges must have provided Martha and Mary a sense of peace.

They also received from Jesus the understanding that their brother was loved. Jesus’ love for Lazarus is without question; in fact, the beautiful phrase that the sisters use to call Jesus back to Bethany when Lazarus was ill perfectly reveals their knowledge of this fact: “The one whom you love is ill.”

In this interpretation, the miracle of raising Lazarus from the dead also takes on another dimension.  Can you imagine the society at that time not only left speechless by the resurrection, but also stunned that the one raised was one whom society had shunned?

In a society that ignored the disabled or, just as worse, treated them as disposable and unworthy, Jesus once again offered a lesson on human dignity and worth, calling on Lazarus to “come out”—words that raise Lazarus from the dead, while simultaneously invite him into a place in the community. Come out, Lazarus, join us.

And what might be the message for us today? First, I have witnessed many loving caregivers, and I have always been inspired by the selflessness and love that they have shown to others. It’s not an easy road to travel, but hopefully when they, too, are “anxious and worried about many things,” they can find strength in their faith like Martha and Mary.

My involvement with the Ursuline Sisters and Ursuline Sisters Mission has shown me that we still have progress to be made on how we treat the disabled in our own society. Let’s not contribute to the ridicule and poor treatment of the disabled–signs that our society itself can be disabled by its own cruelty and hard-heartedness—and instead remember that those with disabilities are ones whom Jesus loves.

The Ursuline Sisters and their ministries provide many services to those who have disabilities. Like Jesus, the work of the Ursulines serve as a reminder to those touched by their ministries that they are seen, they are loved, and they are worthy.